Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 20, 2017

Days without End, by Sebastian Barry

days-without-end I usually like it when an author experiments with style and content but because I love the seductive Irish lilt in the voice of Sebastian Barry’s characters, I was a little taken aback to find that his new novel is set in 19th century America and narrated by an Irish-American protagonist.  There’s a slim connection with the Irish diaspora because Thomas McNulty came to America as a very young waif in the wake of the Potato Famine, and there are aspects of the way he and his fellow Irish-born are treated that attest to discrimination, but the lilt was gone.  And the blurb made it clear that it was going to be about the Indian Wars and the Civil Wars.  I wasn’t sure that I was going to like it.

However, my reservations were soon obliterated by the force of the story.  Days without End soon became unputdownable, and yes, it was another four-o’clock-in-the-morning finish.  Though it is not the main focus of the story I was utterly charmed by the way Barry was able to create a convincing gay relationship that went undetected, and (leaving aside the manner in which she was orphaned) I really liked the way Thomas and his companion John Cole became loving parents to an Indian girl.  I now realise that, since gay families are common enough now in everyday life, it’s rather odd that I haven’t come across cross-dressing gay parents in fiction before.  (Was the cross-dresser in Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker a parent?  I can’t remember.)

What made the novel convincing was the savagery of the natural world :

We were four or five days from the frontier, we reckoned, just  a bit of a ride now to Missouri and what we called home, when a storm came in over us.  It was one of those bleak ice storms, everything it touched freezing, including the bits of our bodies showing.  I never rode in anything so cold.  We had nowhere to shelter and so were obliged to push on.  After the first day the storm decided to go worse.  It made the world into a perpetual night but when the real night came the temperature was maybe down to forty minus, we didn’t know exactly.  Our blood said the bottom of the scale.  It’s a queer wild feeling, that freezing. We laid neckerchiefs across our mouths and chins but after a while little good it did.  Our gloves froze and soon our fingers were fixed fast around the reins like our hands had deceased and gone to their reward.  Couldn’t feel them which was maybe just as well.  The wind was all icy blades and might have shaved the beards and whiskers of the mean but that they had already froze to metal. We all went white, frosted from our crowns to our toes, and the black, the grey, and brown horses were all turned white now.  The blankets of chill white rheum over everything was not warming.  Picture us, two hundred men riding into that wind.  (p.52)

The butchery of the world of war is equally vivid:

The wounded are making the noises of ill-butchered cattle.  Throats have been slit but not entirely. There are gurgles and limbs held in agony and many have stomach wounds that presage God-awful deaths.  Then the moon rises quietly and throws down her long fingers of nearly useless light.  We trudge back to the breastworks and we get the details into action and the wounded are carried up into camp on the new ambulances.  The dressing station has survived the Reb cavalry and the surgeon is inside with his saws and bandages.  There are more bullet wounds than expected and though in all truth I heard no shells throughout our charge many have missing arms and arms hanging and legs.  The helpers light the big oil lamps and the sawing begins.  There’s no hospital yet further up the country so it’s now or never.  Anything that can be bandaged is wrapped tightly.  At the end of the surgeon’s able the pile of arms and legs grows. Like the offered wares of some filthy butcher.  The fires have been stoked and the irons is pushed against the wounds and the screaming men are held down.  We know in our hearts they can’t survive. The old rot will set in and though we may bump them back north they won’t see another Christmas. (p.148)

This is no whitewash of America’s brutal history.  Thomas and John adopt Winona after they have taken part in the massacre of her tribe, and time and again, the soldiers sent to protect the pioneering settlers betray negotiations for peace.

Now it was inching into autumn and those treaty Indians had to make way in their villages for that old murderer called Famine.  That filthy dark-hearted scrawny creature that wants the ransom of lives.  Because government food that was promised was late or never coming.  The major was looking vexed and tormented.  His honest heart had made promises, that how he saw it. (p.59)

But when in desperation those Indians kill some stray emigrants, in a scene reminiscent of the frontier massacres here in Australia, that same major sends out a reprisal party to massacre to ‘put a stop to that.’

Barry doesn’t shy away from recognising the inherent racism of his characters.  With not much in the way of alternative employment,  McNulty and Cole sign up for the Civil War, and there’s a moment on the first day when McNulty acknowledges a painful truth: it was one thing to fight the Indians, because they were Other, and something different to fight men who were just the same as they were.

…there is another thing or other things we have no names for because it is not part of usual talk. It is not like running at Indians who are not your kind but it is running at a mirror of yourself  Those Johnny Rebs are Irish, English and all the rest. (p.130)

However, McNulty grows in stature as the years go by.  He comes to understand his culpability in dispossessing the indigenous people; and while his initial motivation in enlisting for the Civil War was nothing laudable, he is appalled to see the cavalier way that the Confederates treat the lives of Negroes, whether they are slaves or not.

In the Andersonville Prison of War camp, McNulty and Cole try to help. (My apologies for the offensive language, it’s the authentic language of the text.)

That boy’s hand is hanging by a thread, I say.  Can’t you get someone to do for him? Surgeon won’t attend no nigger, says the guard.  Private Kidd is his handle.  Ain’t you got to tend a man so sick, says John Cole.  I don’t know, says Private Kidd.  He should a thought of that afore he thought to fight us.  Goddamn niggers.  There’s another dark-haired boy in the tent with us wants us to stop asking to help Bert Calhoun.  Says they shoot anyone that helps the niggers.  Says the niggers is put in with us to find out where we stand.  Says he’s seen just yesterday a guard shoot a bluecoat sergeant because he asked just the same question John Cole did.  I’m looking at John Cole now see how he is taking this.  John Cole nods like a sage.  Guess I understand, he says.  (p.165)

There is so much to say about this powerful novel.  Apart from the evocative language, it is rich in themes, exposing the personal dilemmas of a boy coming of age in an age of extreme violence.  As you can see from the excerpts I’ve quoted, the novel is not for the faint-hearted, but I wouldn’t have missed reading it for anything.

Author: Sebastian Barry
Title: Days without End
Publisher: Faber & Faber, 2016
ISBN: 9780571277018
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia

Available from Fishpond: Days Without End

 


Responses

  1. Couldn’t agree more, Lisa. I read this recently and it’s stayed with me. I felt the same through the first couple of pages, trying to adjust to a style I hadn’t been expecting at all. But McNulty’s voice quickly became so real and what he was relating was so powerful that I was drawn in and had to keep reading until I finished. The horror and violence of some scenes might have turned me away but seeing it all through his eyes and having it told in his words, more like listening to him telling the story than reading it, meant I was able to see the whole vivid picture of that young man’s life. Most of all, for me, this book is about what ‘voice’ can do. Interestingly, I came across a YouTube clip of Sebastian Barry reading from the book and I almost jumped when he began – it was Thomas McNulty’s voice, the new sound of American yes, but Irish too.

    • I’m going to have a look for that You Tube video tomorrow, I’m of to bed now… hopefully to get to sleep at a more sensible time!

  2. Not for the faint-hearted indeed. I can hear those noises and see the blood and the limbs and the wounds. Incredible writing. I can certainly get how your reservations would have been ‘obliterated’. Terrific review.

    • Thanks, Karen, for a book review like this I think the author’s words can speak for themselves:)

  3. Hmmm… I’ve been too poorly to write my review, but I have to say I didn’t much like this novel. I’m a massive Barry fan so it pains me to say this but I was not convinced by the gay relationship and the endless battle scenes grew tiresome. I suspect I may be the only reader who feels like this, however, as I’m yet to see a bad review…

    • You’re still not well? I hope you recover soon…

      As I think you can tell from my opening remarks, I was doubtful, and truth be told, for all that I liked it, it didn’t feel like reading a Barry novel. A very good novel, IMO, but not like one of his. (#SelfDeprecatingGrin Says The Great Expert, who’s only read two but has all the ones you’ve read in the TBR because I bought them after reading your reviews).

      • I went back to work yesterday but still not 100%… I read 3 books in 3 days holed up in my sick bed, so I have a bit of catching up to do review wise 😱

        I’ll admit the writing is gorgeous and typically Barry (I underlined so many wonderful turns of phrase and descriptions) but I thought the story lacked inter-personal development. I wanted to know how the characters felt, why they behaved the way they did etc but we didn’t get that. I’m also astonished that two gay men in that era did not suffer any abuse or harassment, nor did they feel the need to cover up their relationship…

        • I think it was explained somewhere (I didn’t bookmark it) that because it was an era where so many shared a bed anyway, that it wasn’t obvious to anyone else. Which, when I stop to think about it, makes perfect sense. If being gay is just a normal aspect of the sexuality continuum, then there must have been endless couples who ‘got away with it’ over the centuries by being discreet. (especially in male-only environments like the armed forces). We know about the high profile examples of people who were exposed and punished for it, e.g. Oscar Wilde, but maybe #guessing 10% of the population were gays in Victorian who didn’t attract any notice from anyone, or whose choices didn’t bother the people who did realise what was going on.
          I agree that you have to read between the lines a bit to know what McNulty felt, but we do know how his naïve and self-interested ideas changed over time. We know what he felt about war, and dispossession (he compares it somewhere to the dispossession of the Irish) and his last choice shows us that he has developed a moral code about facing up to justice.

  4. I had similar reservations when I heard about this novel but now I’m seeing a number of reviews which are positive I am thinking I should give it a go. I’ve been in an ice storm (in Michigan) and though I wasnt on he back of a horse it was still a frightening experience

    • It’s dust storms and fire storms that freak us out here. A dust storm rolling over you, even in a car, feels like the end of the world is coming. And being in any proximity to a bushfire is a horrible experience because you can’t see much and you can’t breathe because of the smoke. I think whether ice, dust or fire, it’s being at the mercy of the elements that terrifies us because we humans are so used to being in control of our environments, especially when we live in cities.

      • from what I’ve seen on tv news broadcasts those bushfires would be absolutely terrifying especially since you never know if its going to spread in front of you and block an exit

        • I don’t go anywhere near the mountains in summer…

  5. Thanks for taking me back to this wonderful novel, Lisa. Seems you’ve had the same reaction to it as I did. A great review.

  6. Interesting that you describe his prose as having an Irish ‘lilt’- we normally wouldn’t expect to ‘hear’ an accent so vividly in plain written English, but I have always loved this in his previous books too, and find myself thinking and reading in my head with a ‘lilted’ voice. Marvellous review. Thanks. Robert.

    • Thank you, Robert:)
      That’s Barry’s gift, I think, that somehow he achieves that lilt. Something about the placement of words within a sentence that would otherwise be “plain written English” e.g. ‘would you be doing that’ or ‘are you not going to help now’ can act as a trigger for ‘hearing’ throughout the book the Irish accent that I’m familiar with from friends.

  7. I love Sebastian Barry, too—’The Secret Scripture’ is one of my all-time favourites. I have this book sitting on my bedside table and I can’t wait to start it. Barry’s coming to the Perth Writers Festival, and I’ve already booked my tickets—love that Irish lilt!

    • Oh, envy!
      Reading this one has made me realise that I must read his others on my TBR….

      • I think I’ll have to ask him for a photo! #itsnotstalking #imjustafan

  8. I have been so put off by the fact that this isn’t set in Ireland that I haven’t wanted to read it, but I think you’ve convinced me to give it a go!

    • That’s great, I look forward to seeing what you think about it:) (I love reading other people’s reviews of books I’ve read).

  9. […] of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry because I had just read his latest novel Days Without End (see my review) and couldn’t help but love it despite its confronting moments and unexpected setting in the […]

  10. […] liked his fiction up to now) Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber), see my review History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), debut novel, but I’m […]


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